"RWD is bad for performance" is good for performance


Myths are powerful things. They certainly have the ability to destroy—we’ve seen that many times. But put the right spin on a myth and you can use it to build up; to create something new and better.

Responsive design just can’t seem to shake the rumor that it’s bad for performance. It’s very frequently spouted as a downside of the technique—a reason why you may not want to pursue responsive design for a project.

Just to be clear where I stand on this: I don’t agree. I don’t agree because I’ve built responsive sites that performed well and because I’ve seen many others who have done the same. I don’t agree because I’ve looked at heavy and slow responsive sites and seen how fixable those issues are. I don’t agree because I’ve seen many non-responsive sites that are just as heavy and slow.

Bad performance stems from a lack of attention and commitment performance within an organization—not from whether or not the site is responsive. Saying responsive design is bad for performance is the same as saying optimizing for touch is bad for performance. It doesn’t make much sense because you can’t expect to do either in isolation and create a good overall experience.

All that being said, I’ve learned to embrace the “responsive design is bad for performance” statement whenever it comes up.

During the planning stages of a recent project with a new client, someone voiced the concern that pursuing a responsive design would be bad for performance. This was not an organization that had a strong culture of performance in the past. They—like many—had sort of casually paid attention but hadn’t really committed to it.

But the stigma around responsive design was so strong that just this rumor was enough for them to express concern. They had read enough articles complaining about responsive design being bad for performance to realize that they didn’t want to go down that same route.

As I felt my typical rebuttal starting to form, I realized that this wasn’t actually a problem. They were interested in building a good website. They knew they needed to hit a broad spectrum of devices and browsers and they knew that responsive design could help them with that.

And—because of the negative stigma around responsive design and performance—they had suddenly become a little more interested in this performance stuff than they had been in the past. The myth wasn’t causing harm; it was opening the door to a more intentional approach to web performance.

So instead of simply refuting the claim we started talking about the things we could do to make sure that their responsive site wouldn’t suffer from those performance issues.

We talked about setting up a system to monitor performance using a private instance of WebPageTest.

We talked about how to tie those performance metrics with their analytics and other business metrics to be able to see the correlation between the two.

We talked about the competitive advantages of good performance.

We talked about setting and enforcing a performance budget to make sure performance didn’t slip through the cracks.

When we were done talking the company wasn’t merely doing a redesign, they were also starting down the path to a better culture of performance inside their organization. They now have a robust system in place for monitoring performance, tools incorporated into their development process to ensure performance budgets are maintained, and performance standards worked into their internal SLA’s.

This all happened because they wanted to create a quality responsive site, but had heard a rumor.

As it turns out, “responsive design is bad for performance” can actually be really good for performance.